As a member of the Shenandoah County Historical Society, it is not surprising that my interest in our barns originates from the study of our local history. I have learned that the barn architecture we see locally matches the ethnic traditions and migration and settlement patterns of the Germans who came here. A study of our barns also reveals much about the agricultural history of our farming county. Certainly, the relatively sparse survival of pre-Civil War barns, and their locations, provides insight into the direct impact of that war in Shenandoah County.
History and architecture provide two important ways to approach the study of barns, but there is much more. Having now surveyed well over 100 Shenandoah County barns, I am finding some of those other approaches. I can thank artist Sally Veach not only for stimulating me to start the barns inventory, but also for showing me her artist’s emotional view of our barns. Her approach opened my thinking to other aspects of Shenandoah County barns.
Our barns are physical reminders of the skills of their builders. The building of barns required careful planning, heavy lifting and the gathering of community – not just for the manpower to raise the barn, but also to support the workers and prepare the food for the big meal which followed. Barns are constructed of local materials produced in Shenandoah County. Barns are made from the oak, chestnut and pine trees found in abundance here more than a century ago. Barn foundations are most often made of native limestone quarried locally and carefully laid by skilled masons. Barns are the essence of Shenandoah County.
Barns were used hard, modified and maintained by self-reliant working farmers and their families. Barns were locations of demanding work, caring for animals and processing and storing crops. Granary walls in many barns display written records of crop harvests including types of grain, number of bushels, dates of threshing and sometimes the names of those who produced the crop. Barns are places where young children played and later learned the strong work ethic of their parents and grandparents.
It almost goes without saying that barns are beautiful. Prominent, graceful and functional icons of our history, barns occupy some of the most scenic places in Shenandoah County. They demand to be studied, measured, photographed, recorded and talked about. It is my hope that the Barns Program sponsored by the Historical Society will raise our awareness and enjoyment of these treasures of Shenandoah County, leading to the preservation of as many as possible for a long time.